Snapshot: a young Black woman cries quietly as a storm rises around her.
“Don’t we have a sound cue with that?” asks the director from the dark.
As lighting & projection designer Joey Moro adjusts the light on the actress, and runs the projections of lightning and rain again, the sound cue gets worked on. A big boom for the scene transition but then a quiet build under the crying. Meanwhile scenic designer Sarah Lambert is rustling up the chairs that were removed from stage during the transition and placing them on the far ends onstage.
Snapshot: The towering be-robed deity is having trouble climbing the stairs to the stage in his platform boots. Costume designer Sarah Bernstein shows him how to gather up his layers of tulle.
Snapshot: Another meeting. 5 chairs. The young man: “I didn’t grow up wanting to be a fireman or an astronaut. I just want to survive on a dying planet.”
Director Godfrey Simmons is navigating the world premiere of “The Next Storm,” playing Nov. 15, 16, 22 and 23 at Cornell’s Schwartz Center.
“It is the year 2030 and parts of Ithaca are under water.… What happens when students and bureaucrats, parents and developers, idealists and realists come head to head over the best course toward climate resiliency?” A co-production between Cornell’s Dept. of Performing and Media Arts (PMA) and Civic Ensemble, it is also Simmons’ swan song as Civic’s co-Artistic Director. In December he moves to Hartford, CT to begin his tenure as the new Artistic Director of HartBeat Ensemble.
Producer and PMA faculty Sara Warner states “I have long wanted to partner with Civic and applied for an Engaged Cornell grant to use my Theater and Social Change class to create a community-based play with students and local residents.” The first iteration, Climates of Change, was devised “from story circles and interviews with groups and individuals across the country. With The Next Storm, we added playwright and journalist Thom Dunn to our team. He crafted the material the students and community members generated into a futuristic tale set in 2030. It’s a wry comedy that involves the audience in the action.”
Simmons points out that he is juggling three different frameworks for creating theater with this production. “I’m not sure people realize how unique this is.” The Next Storm combines the academic theatre, the professional practitioner and the community-based approaches, each with “their own rigor.” Simmons sees his place as “holding space open for everyone.” While inevitably there are compromises, there also is a compensating synergy in the work.
Fresh out of William & Mary, Simmons hit D.C. around 1988 intending to be a sports journalist. He got work as a medical writer, at the height of the early HIV/AIDS crisis. But a second vocation had bitten him in high school, when he was “head-hunted” to add the diversity of a black boy to Yorktown High School’s show choir. He got a bug for acting, which he followed through college. Now in D.C., he auditioned and landed a role as a rookie cop in “Bluesman,” which garnered great reviews, and in a town hungry at that moment for teaching artists of color, he found his calling, working throughout D.C. the next four years.
Moving to NYC proved rough, until a connection made at D.C.’s Roundhouse Theatre got him a gig with People’s Light in Philly to play Haemon in Antigone and be a teaching artist. Simmons still tells his students at Cornell, “it’s about being good in the room.” Auditions are less important to your career than the connections you build.
Back to NYC, 1994. First Off-Broadway show, with Leslie Uggams in The Old Settler. Then originating a role at Playwright’s Horizons in Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer
Vacation. Regional roles included two times at Syracuse Stage: “Raisin in the Sun” (2000) followed by “Blues for an Alabama Sky.”
For “Settler,” he cut off his dreads, which he buried ceremonially in Syracuse, which may be, he jokes, why he keeps coming to central New York.
2002: L.A. “A disaster! I’m a theater guy.” Just when he felt at a loss “financially, creatively and spiritually” a friend he had temped with in New York City mentioned a program at Cornell University, the Resident Professional Teaching Artist. So he landed in Ithaca, once again in the play Antigone, hired to play Tiresias by director David Feldshuh.
In that production, Sarah K. Chalmers plays the choral leader, and a relationship begins to develop between she and Simmons. As he finishes his first year, New York’s Epic Theatre Ensemble comes calling, but Simmons asks them to hold off a year, for Cornell wants him to play Walter Younger opposite the Mama of Yolanda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter.
Epic has an extensive role in the schools program, including a Shakespeare Remix in which high school students add their own related writing to a cut-down Shakespeare play and perform it. It also had a racially conscious casting policy—there were always people of color in their productions. “I mean, I got to play Einstein off-Broadway,” Simmons said.
Obama’s election “rocked my mind and disturbed it”—the disturbance, the sudden idea among many white people, and perhaps a few others, that racism was over. He expected the pendulum to swing. So he toured the south and developed a play about the moment in time with co-author Brandt Adams.
Eventually Sarah Chalmers also joined Epic. Then, in 2010 Chalmers was invited back to Cornell as an RPTA, and then invited to teach after that program ended. When they realized they were going to have a child, they decided to plant themselves in Ithaca.
With that decision came another, founding a theatre company based on community engagement. Along with Jennifer Herzog, they founded Civic Ensemble, whose motto is “Theatre is everyone’s birthright.” Their work these past nine years has included several community driven works, establishing the Re-Entry Theatre Program that works with ex-convicts, co-productions with Cornell (All God’s Chillun’, Baltimore) and several professional practitioner productions, including three stunning works by Judy Tate, an Athol Fugard play and a commission from Ithaca and Romanian playwright Saviana Stanescu.
What does HartBeat offer Simmons—an established theater company with its own space, and a city that is 80% brown and Black, he points out.
In an interview in American Theatre he speaks of the theatre artist/actor as “someone who tells stories for a living in real time within a community. And if we go back historically to the griots, the people who tell the stories in our communities—I’ve always felt the calling to do that. To really try to facilitate those stories in our communities. Part of what makes it easier—and by easier I mean joyful, actually—is when I can help facilitate an audience or constituents made up of Black and brown folks who actually see themselves onstage.”
Sarah and their son Sam will remain through the school year in Ithaca, before joining him, as they transition Civic into the hands of two new leaders, Sage Clemenco and Julia Taylor.